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A Commons Factor

The growing visibility of Indians in the UK polls reflects their heft at several levels

A Commons Factor
Vilas Chirakaran
A Commons Factor

Chloe Morrison can’t wait to exercise her franchise in the forthcoming British general elections. A resident of Ealing and Southall borough in London, she is chafed by the controversial plans to strip the local hospital, the only one for miles, of accident and emergency services (A&E). But Chloe and hundreds of her fellow residents are pinning their hopes on a man who is staunchly campaigning to save the crucial A&E services from the axe—their local Conservative candidate Gurcharan Singh.

The 61-year-old devout Sikh is one of the longest serving local councillors in London and just one of the many Indian faces who are set to alter the British political landscape next month. Gurcharan had arrived in Britain four decades ago,  with just three sterling pounds in his pocket and a degree in Mathematics. “I had thought myself to be lucky when I got a job as a trainee guard at the Southall train station. At that time I had never thought I would aspire to be the MP of the same area,” says Gurcharan, who comes from a modest farming family in Uttar Pradesh.

As the three main national parties—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats—engage in the battle of the hustings on May 6, the key to tipping the political scale on any side may well lie in the hands of Indians like Gurcharan. Together, the three parties have fielded 40 candidates of  Indian descent. Add to this number those who are contesting as Independents or for smaller political parties unlikely to win, and you have an unprecedented number of over 50 candidates who belong to a community that constitutes just 1.8 per cent of the British population.

These candidates are a captivating medley who demonstrate the heterogeneous nature of the Indian diaspora. They range from first-generation Indians who landed with little more than loose change in their pockets and an illegitimate child growing up gay, to a bus conductor who cut his political teeth years ago and suave women who can be as stroppily shrill as any Conservative on saving the British Pound. All this shows India matters—it’s the single largest ethnic community, the second largest investor here, and sends the highest number of students to British universities after the Chinese.

Former BBC journalist Vijay Rana, who’s based in London for 28 years, has keenly watched the ever-changing British demographics engineered by subcontinental migrants. He explains the surfeit of Indian candidates thus: “The paradigm shift in the political make-up and attitude of the main national parties over the last decade was inevitable. Since Asian communities, especially Indians, have unintentionally slid over the margin and blended in the mainstream British society, politicians can no longer overlook the potential they wield.”

Even the insular Tories are eyeing the support of Indians, fielding as many as 15 from the community for the polls.

Even the insular Tories have realised, albeit belatedly, the importance of mustering the support of Indians, fielding as many as 15 Indian candidates for the May 6 election. In fact, out of the top 100 seats they are targeting, nearly 14 constituencies have a significant number of Indians; in some cases they constitute nearly a third of the electorate. Says Rana, “Over the years, it has become imperative for even a party like the Conservatives to now have an ethnic representation that correctly corresponds with the demographic composition of this country.” The salience of Indian numbers is enhanced because of their propensity to vote. A research by Professor Mohammed Anwar of Warwick University shows Asians are significantly more likely to go out and vote than non-Asians. He pointed out that in the last general election, the turnout of Indians was 67 per cent, as against 60 per cent nationally.

However, the electoral arithmetic may still not produce the desired multiplications of Indian candidates in the British Parliament. Take Simon Nayyar, the Tory candidate from Hackney South, whose suave looks and smart mannerisms should, one may think, enable him to sail through. But Nayyar is a homosexual, thereby making it an uphill task for him to swing the votes of the mostly orthodox diaspora in his favour. Says Nayyar, “I was born illegitimately at a time when, particularly in the British Asian community, this was regarded as an issue of great personal sensitivity and embarrassment. I was adopted into a loving and caring family. My mother was English and my father Indian. Also, my sexuality has never been an issue in my family.” But would there be many takers among the Indian community for his line?

Priti Patel, Tory candidate from Witham, has “strong Conservative values”

By contrast, it’s expected to be easy for Priti Patel from Witham constituency, who has been much talked about in the British press for her “strong Conservative values”. A highly successful professional and mother of one, Priti is strongly tipped to win on her Tory ticket and could well become the first Asian woman in the House of Commons. The credit could also go to, or be shared with, Valerie Vaz, sister of well-known Labour politician Keith Vaz, now also a member of the Privy Council. An established bbc presenter, Vaz is contesting from a safe Labour seat and could soon make the headlines herself if she joins her brother in Westminster—a rare brother-sister duo in parliament.

“At present, there are five MPs of Indian origin in parliament but the number is set to soar from this year on,” says Virendra Sharma, MP from Southall, who fervently believes the country’s quintessential multicultural fabric will replicate itself at the political helm as well. Firmly holding on to one of the Labour strongholds, Sharma didn’t have it easy—he came to live in the UK in 1968 as a 21-year-old after getting married to a British Indian. “I started my life as a conductor on that bus, the route no. 207, right here in Southall,” Sharma points to a bus from the window of his campaign office. “It has taken me over four decades to reach where I am today. But your generation is lucky, it won’t have to toil this long. Wait for a few years and you might see Indians holding power at the highest of levels,” Sharma says with a smile.

But making a fairly realistic stab at 10 Downing Street? Think about it, or rather, fantasise about it.

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